Rustem Abdrashev: Patchwork Quilt (Kurak Korpe, Kazakhstan, 2007)

reviewed by Michael Rouland © 2008

Rustem Abdrashev's Patchwork Quilt is the most entertaining and enjoyable Central Asian film in recent memory. Abdrashev offers a slick and polished film that combines witty humor and elements of the absurd. Just before its September premiere, Abdrashev described this film as “light comedy” at Kinostan 2007. But Patchwork Quilt is also clever and poignant. The energy and pace of the film are eclectic and frenetic. In banal terms, it is a commentary on post-socialist transition; the film is equally a tale of friendships and values tested by the new opportunities of the global marketplace. As its title implies, the film is a commentary on life woven into a patchwork quilt.

Two decades after Rashid Nugmanov's The Needle (Igla, 1988) and Wild East (Dikii vostok, 1993), Abdrashev brings another postmodern vision of Central Asia to the screen. This should not come as a surprise, since Abdrashev worked with the Nugmanov brothers in the past. This film's cinematographer, Marat Nugmanov, was also the cinematographer in those seminal films of the Kazakh New Wave. Once again Nugmanov has visualized a beautiful film. Yet in contrast to his previous film, Abdrashev offers a more commercially motivated film than his poetic debut, Renaissance Island (Ostrov vozrozhdeniia, 2004). This also marks a turning point in Kazakh cinema.

The film begins with a series of contrasts: a motorcycle races through an underpass accompanied by the music of up-tempo electronica and of a Kazakh mouth harp. We then hear a wolf howl and throat music; we see a hunter with his eagle and deer running in the mountains. More cuts lead to the motorcycle racing through Almaty, to an eagle flying after a hare, and then to an elderly woman entering a CAT scan machine.

Linguistically, the film is also divided between urban and rural arenas. Characters of the village speak in Kazakh, even the Russian Matvei. I can imagine that this would surprise many urban Kazakh filmgoers given their Kazakh-language deficits. By contrast, the language of the city is Russian. The Kazakh oligarch describes Russian as the language of “business” while showing a little flair for English on the phone. Kazakh city officials visiting the small town also speak in Russian.

Many of the film's narrative details are sorted out in the beginning when a doctor explains that the grandmother's tumor has metastasized and there is little hope of her survival. In a subsequent loss of vitality, the grandfather, Isike Ake (played by the ubiquitous Nurzhuman Ikhtymbaev), has to use his pension to buy a pelt since his eagle (called Mr. Schmidt) is unable to hunt effectively.

This is not a film reveling in the collapse of village life. The urban renaissance in Kazakhstan, funded by recent oil exploits and petrodollars, has radically transformed the visual experience of the major cities. Kazakhstan's new capital, Astana, is now a genuine metropolis, effectively created out of “empty” steppe. The motorcycle that opens the film is leaving the city behind for something missing. The arc of the film reveals the details of daily life in the village. The protagonist, a five-year old named Kenzhe, is a naïve observer who navigates village life as he visits his grandparents while his father sorts out his business affairs. Kenzhe drifts into Russian and Kazakh.

Humor pervades the film with interludes of a “new Olympic sport” in the form of Kökbörü (with a stuffed bear), a comic figure selling “artistically” painted outhouses, and Yashka, the occasionally drunken pig. In one moment, we witness a wife taking her drunk and lazy husband to task for his lack of help in the household. He is in such a pathetic state that he even quaffs cologne. His luck changes, however, as he wanders unkempt into the street: three state officials, sent to this obscure town to determine the street names, engage the husband in a conversation:

Official: Hello!

Drunk: Hello!

Official: Are you a local?

Drunk: Yes.

Official: Can you tell me the name of that street?

Drunk: Komsomol'skaia.

Official: And this lane?

Drunk: My lane.

Official: We understand that. You live there. What is its name?

Official: Who is it named for?

Drunk: Beimbet Koibagarova St.

Official: I do not know who that is.

Official: He is probably a writer.

Drunk: Not a writer; he is a hero of socialist labor from this village. Beimbet Koibagarov.

Official: Ah, I understand.

Drunk: What do you understand?

Official: Thank you, comrade.

Drunk: Thank you!

Later, the officials return with the newly printed signs of B. Koibagarov Street. The wife is simultaneously shocked and proud of her worthless husband. This single scene combines many sentiments felt across the post-Soviet landscape. We see the rise of alcoholism and of unemployment caused by the economic disruption of uneven reforms. We also observe the perpetual redaction of street signs to reflect the agendas of new nationalisms. The irony here is that the sign is changed to the name of a “hero of socialist labor,” a Soviet gesture.

There is a persistent absurd element in the film. A stop sign is placed in the middle of a highway alongside a hastily painted crosswalk and a “Zebra crossing” is set up. This improbable signifier transforms an empty space into an impromptu tourist spot, and several photographic encounters contribute to the festive air. At this point, the dark and mysterious motorcycle from the opening sequences returns, and we realize that the rider is a Kazakh woman. The biker becomes part of a love triangle between Albek, the tattooed archeologist, and the Kazakh oligarch, in which urban and rural cultures continue to compete. When the oligarch proposes marriage, the liminal Albek asks: “What will you talk about?” She replies that she “just wants to live.”

Natural beauty and allegory dominate the end of the film, which is marked by the passage of seasons. In a patchwork of images over the course of the film, the grandmother constructs a quilt as her legacy. Scenes of fabric selection, needle preparation, pattern arrangement, and sewing comprise her action in the film. Beyond the village, the epic grandeur of nature evokes tropes common to the Kazakh and Kyrgyz oeuvre . When Isike Ake and Kenzhe hunt in winter snow, the impressive view is coupled with Kazakh dombïra music. Life's patterns and ages are linked with the seasons.

Rustem Abdrashev's Patchwork Quilt is truly memorable. With wry humor and quick cuts, it recalls the The Needle yet adds a certain poetic ambiguity. The acting is professional, and the dialogue is smart. This is a wonderful sign of the continuing renaissance of Central Asian cinema. Along with the recent films, Guka Omarova's Shizo (2004) and Baksy (2008), Abai Kulbai's Strizh (2007), Abdrashev's film attests to the strong presence of a new generation.

Michael Rouland
Miami University (Ohio)

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Patchwork Quilt, Kazakhstan, 2007
Color, 97 minutes
Director: Rustem Abdrashev
Screenplay: Ermek Tursunov
Cinematography: Marat Nugmanov, Khasanbek Kydyraliev
Music: Edil Khusainov, Abulkhair Abdrashev
Cast: Nurzhuman Ikhtymbaev, Tamara Kosubaeva, Valentina Durumbetova, Albek Raimbekov.
Executive Producer: Sergei Azimov
Production: Kazakhfil'm

Premiered at the Fourth Eurasia International Film Festival

Rustem Abdrashev: Patchwork Quilt (Kurak Korpe, Kazakhstan, 2007)

reviewed by Michael Rouland © 2008

Updated: 13 Jul 08